The Battle of the Moor of Mam Garvia took place on the 31st of July, 1187, after which Roland of Galloway presented King William I with the head of one of his northern rebels, Donald mac William.
King William I faced several major revolts during his reign as well as dealing with the usual grief from south of the border. In that period, the early Middle Ages, it was dealt out by King Henry II, but that’s a story for another day. So, following the effective pacification of Galloway in 1185-6, William, known as ‘William the Lion’, had another issue to deal with in Ross, during 1187-8. No peace for the wicked, nor the good, the bad or the ugly. The latter uprising was a campaign involving Donald mac William (Domnall Meic Uilleim), who seemed to be fighting for the Scottish Throne and had some support of ‘certain powerful men of the Kingdom of Scotland’. That is at least according to Anderson, in his ‘Scottish Annals’. Donald mac William had been a thorn in the side of the King of Scots since at least 1179 and his claim to the throne stemmed from his being a grandson of King Duncan II (Donnchad II) of Scotland.
Donald mac William and William the Lion were both great grandsons of Malcolm III, but the former was supposed to have been illegitimate, which would’ve kinda scuppered any realistic notions he had about claiming the Throne. Donald was a son of Prince William fitz Duncan, who had been identified as an heir to King David I, but had quite happily given up that right in return for the Earldom of Moray. Óengus, Mormaer of Moray, and grandson of King Lulach, was killed in battle in 1130, and the ‘Mormaerdom’ or Earldom, in Norman terms, had been vacant. Now, more recent histories seem to accept that Donald was a legitimate son of the Prince, although not by his first wife, Alice de Rumilly. Assuming that William fitz Duncan did indeed marry a daughter of Óengus of Moray, then Donald mac William was descended from a line of Scottish Kings. Lulach on his mother’s side and Máel Coluim mac Donnchada, his father’s grandfather.
Being excluded from the succession by the grandsons of Máel Coluim's son David I, Malcolm the Maiden and William the Lion in succession, make the resultant rebellions of the mac Williams’ during the 12th Century seem hardly surprising. Donald and his kin, it seems, had to fight for the Mormaerdom of Moray, let alone the rule of Scotland. When his father died, Donald would have been still a minor and that is often cited as the reason for his not being granted the title of Earl, for which he fought once he could wield a sword, which was around the late 1170s, when he begins to appear in recorded events. The army that King William and his brother, Earl David, took to Ross in 1179 was likely intended to subdue Donald, but two years later, Donald was still abroad in Scotland with a large army. However, King William’s attention was first diverted to events in Galloway and also by Henry II of England, and he had no effective success against Donald other than to ensure he didn’t achieve anything substantial either – a stalemate, if you like.
It was not until Roland (Lochlann or Lachlan), Lord of Galloway, was brought into the King’s peace that affairs in Moray and Ross could be settled. Roland was what you might call ‘last man standing’ in Galloway after a series of rebellions and in-fighting was concluded around 1186. He was the son of Uchtred, who was a kind of ‘sub-King’ of Galloway. Uchtred had been murdered by his brother, Roland’s uncle, Gilbert (Gille Brigte) and after Gilbert died, in 1185, Roland set about seizing the lands of his uncle’s heirs. These were guys like Gille Pátraic, Henric Cennédig and Gille Coluim of Galloway. Roland also fell foul of Henry II, who was effectively the patron of Gille Brigte’s son, Donnchad, whom he held as hostage and who was probably the rightful heir of the Galloway lands that Roland had just appropriated. There was a lot of hostage holding and fratricide and regicide and stuff going on in those days. Never a dull moment. It helped that Roland and King William had become kindred spirits as it were, because that kept Henry ‘off his back’ for a while, until the King of England ran out of patience and threatened to invade. Roland went to meet him at Carlise and said, “Sorry, ‘enery, mate, didn’t mean it, really.” He must’ve impressed Henry II as he got off with a warning and the just the loss of part of this territory, which was given to Donnchad as the new ‘Mormaerdom’ of Carrick in consolation. Of course, in later years, that was to fall to Robert the Bruce.
Roland, then, became a good buddy of William the Lion and had the title of ‘Constable of the King of Scots’. He also assimilated Norman French ways, adopted a French name (Roland), manners and mores and welcomed the influx of French and English colonisers. So much so that the Gaelic Annals don’t mention him so much. Hard not to sympathise with the likes of Donald mac William after all that, when you look at the trouble such ‘outsiders’ were to cause in later years, down through the centuries. Donald was probably more pure-bred Picto/Scoto/Gaeleo than William I and anthropologists might argue the case for his lineage rather better than the Lord Lyon King of Arms. In the end, it disnae matter, ‘cos Willie Wallace and Robert the Bruce are ‘Scottish’ heroes regardless of ancestry and we all can trace oorsel’s back to seven distinct European-based, Cro-Magnon ‘tribes’ anyway – and there’s yon DNA to prove it.
By the time all that had come to pass, Donald appears to have been in control of much of the north. He was already in posession of the Royal castle at Auldearn and had destroyed the adjoining burgh. His “numerous armed host” wasted and burned much of the land, and he “put the folk to flight, and slew all whom he could take”. An attempt by a Royal army to deal with Donald early in 1187 appears to have been a failure as William was persuaded to bide at Inverness, rather than risk betrayal or worse in a land of doubtful loyalty. As Roger of Howden reports, "some loved the King not at all" so he was definately on dodgy ground north of the Tay. It took the army of Roland of Galloway to march north and defeat puir Donald. According to the Melrose Chronicler, Roland led an army of three thousand young warriors into Moray (Moireabh) on William's behalf and defeated Donald at the Battle of the Moor of Mam Garvia on the 31st of July, 1187.
Mam Garvia is either somewhere in Ross or in Strath Garve, near Dingwall (likely) or in Moray somewhere else, but wherever it was, it was there Donald lost his heid, which was ta’en aff his shoulders and carried south in triumph to be presented to King William.